PROVIDENCE — A national Latino group convened for the first time in Providence on Friday, and the keynote speaker talked about the need to build Latino political power, punctuating his point with an anecdote about former Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr.
Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, received the Eagle Leadership Award from the Latino Leaders Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “bringing leaders together.”
With about 250 leaders assembled at the Omni Providence Hotel, Vargas recalled receiving a phone call about 25 years ago from Nellie M. Gorbea, who then worked for the Rhode Island Foundation and who is now Rhode Island’s secretary of state.
Vargas said Gorbea told him: “‘I need you to come to Rhode Island to talk about the need to build Latino political power.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely!’ You know, I was new in that position, and I knew you could not be a national organization if all you do is stay in Los Angeles.”
So he flew to Rhode Island and spoke at a Saturday morning event.
“I was giving my remarks, and all of a sudden I was told ‘Stop’ because the mayor of Providence, ‘Buddy’ Cianci, had arrived very, very late,” Vargas recalled, “and he decided he needed to make his remarks now.”
He said he gave the mayor the floor, and Cianci went on to speak at length “about, well, basically himself.”
“When he left,” Vargas said, “I looked around the room and I told everybody, ‘And that’s why you need to build Latino political power.’ ”
The audience applauded.
“Look at what this state has done, what this Latino community has achieved,” Vargas said. “And the work is not done.”
While Gorbea lost her bid to become the first Latina governor in New England (she finished third in Tuesday’s Democratic primary), other Latino candidates won their primary races, including Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos and state treasurer candidate James A. Diossa.
“So much work has been done over 30 years to build up Latinos, and the fact that we have Latinos running for office statewide is a big deal,” said Diossa, who was the first Latino mayor of Central Falls.
Before introducing Vargas, Gorbea spoke and received a standing ovation.
“For many of us, including me, this is a bittersweet moment, I’m not going to deny it,” Gorbea began. When the campaign season first started, she looked forward to celebrations involving many candidates in the Latino community, but political and economic forces began “to tear us apart,” she said. “We worked on different campaigns, we resurrected grudges.”
But she said she sees a bright future for Latino political involvement in Rhode Island.
“While I am going to be off stage for the foreseeable future in the political arena, I am excited about what Rhode Island’s future holds,” Gorbea said. “We have some great candidates going forward at the statewide, at the municipal levels. We can still have a very important role to play in future of Rhode Island.”
Gorbea told the Globe she is looking into options in the private sector now, including the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.
“But I’m not running again,” she said. “Our campaign finance structure needs an overhaul. The only people who can afford to run multiple times for state-level offices are wealthy people. We need to overturn Citizens United and create a public financing system so people from all economic strata can run for public office.”
Matos, the first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor in Rhode Island history, spoke during the luncheon. She welcomed the attendees to Rhode Island, noting that 20 years ago there weren’t many Latino candidates for public office, but now Latinos hold positions of political power throughout the state, including the House, Senate, and Providence City Council.
“Think back and thank those that came before us and set the table for us to be here today,” she said, naming local Latino leaders in attendance. “I am standing here today thanks to the hard work that all of you have done.”
Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, the first Latina mayor in the state, congratulated the Latino candidates who ran in Tuesday’s primary elections.
“Let’s continue support each other,” she said. “We are stronger together. We are empowered together. As our Latino community in Rhode Island continues to grow, it’s so critical that we not only uplift each other, but we do the important groundwork supporting our Latino communities, our families, our businesses.”
Former deputy secretary of state Gonzalo Cuervo, who finished second in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for mayor of Providence, also spoke, saying Latino political progress in Rhode Island has been “remarkable.” But, he said, “We still have a ways to go,” and he’s looking forward to the strides made by the next generation.
Cuervo drew a comparison between getting involved in politics and getting involved in acting. “People start off as extras, and they get hired to stand around,” he said. “And then as their career progresses, they take on supporting roles. And then eventually, if they are good enough, they can take leading roles.”